A shocking video which outraged Afrikaners in 2008 has resurfaced, if only to once again emphasize the privileges of its elite, white male students.
The University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, a South African college, has reinstated two white students who were expelled last year after serving four black female housekeepers and one elderly black male housekeeper with beef stew which one of the men had previously urinated into. But it was not enough to harass these workers: the students filmed their heinousness, as well as the vomiting of the five housekeepers after learning they had been served urine-soaked stew.
At the end of the video, the students boldly announced, “That is what we think of integration.” The video was purposely filmed, the students claim, as a “satirical slant” while the campus prepared to racially integrate the residence halls and dormitories. At that point, the campus was still divided into white and black dormitories, nearly twenty years after the end of legal apartheid in South Africa.
Two of the accused students, Roelof Malherbe and Schalk van der Merwe, maintain their innocence in spite of the evidence which had previously been released for the viewing of the university’s student body. It appears that the university is taking them at their word. After being banned from the campus in 2008, the vice-chancellor of the university announced on Friday that complaints against the two students were being withdrawn and both men could return to campus to resume their scholastic studies. Both men will still face human rights and criminal charges from the South African government.
They are not racists, these men claim, and the employees were in on the joke the whole time! It must not have been terribly funny, though, since all five of the employees continue to be harassed by the students they are cleaning up after. They have requested new uniforms, as the old ones are “painful reminders” of the incident, as well as asked to be moved to a different dormitory, as all five housekeepers are “still being taunted, they are still being humiliated,” according to comments made to CNN by Ranjeni Munusamy, a spokeswoman for South Africa’s ministry of higher education.
In February 2008, Malherbe and van der Merwe released a joint statement, claiming that,
“Although, as was intended at the time, it appears to viewers as if one of the persons urinated in the traditional brew prepared, it most certainly did not take place and a close study of the particular insert will confirm that the liquid was squirted from a bottle.”
This argument will strike some viewers as logical. Living in the age of YouTube, web-savvy Internet users are generally not surprised when action scenes are exaggerated, altered, or even faked in order to drive up interest. However, this was no ordinary film stunt, and the effects of the video’s “satirical slant” bring up serious questions about the legacy racism, sexism, classism and colonialism within this university’s walls.
Satire, as most people understand the concept, involves “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.” What, exactly, are the vices and follies of Black housekeepers in this video?
As portrayed by these students, Black women and elderly men who live and work on-campus are naïve, eager to please at the expense of their innate dignities, and willing to undergo extreme humiliation in order to be accepted by white Afrikaners. The satirical joke of the video mocks these four women and one elderly man for, essentially “working while black.” That’s not satire. That is racism, rooted in colonialist oppressions which have been perpetuated against Blacks in South Africa since the nineteenth century, long before the General Election of 1948, which legalized apartheid in the colony.
Women of color suffered tremendously under the system of apartheid and surely, it is no coincidence that working-class Black women are the main targets of this film. Without access to public education, voting, or the right to own property, many endured poverty and unemployment. In the Women’s Charter, adopted by women of color at the Founding Conference of the Federation of South African Women in 1954, the women noted :
“We women share with our menfolk the cares and anxieties imposed by poverty and its evils. As wives and mothers, it falls upon us to make small wages stretch a long way. It is we who feel the cries of our children when they are hungry and sick. It is our lot to keep and care for the homes that are too small, broken and dirty to be kept clean. We know the burden of looking after children and land when our husbands are away in the mines, on the farms, and in the towns earning our daily bread… We women have stood and will stand shoulder to shoulder with our menfolk in a common struggle against poverty, race and class discrimination, and the evils of the colourbar.”
The individuals who have been “satirized” in this video share several common factors: they are middle-aged; working-class, held as subservient employees to the student body on-campus; they are Black. In mocking both their existence and the attempts to desegregate the university population, these young white guys have flaunted their class, gender, and racial privileges and made clear that any attempts to integrate will be met with their scorn. Regardless of whether the actions of the video were faked or legitimate, their message of intolerance to racial and gender-based differences shines through. The University of the Free State has already endured mass protests in response to the video’s release. Perhaps further peaceful protests will bring greater attention to this issue and bring justice for the workers of the university.